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September 26, 2005

Stick to the Symphonies - Carl Nielsen's Maskarade at Covent Garden

Posted by David Conway

Carl Nielsen's Maskarade
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
conducted by Michael Schønwandt, directed by David Pountney
in repertory 19th September - 13th October 2005

David Conway is unconvinced by Carl Nielsen's foray into comic opera, but is jealous of the Royal Opera House's service for the deaf.

The hallmark of the music of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen is obsession. In those powerful symphonies we are constantly confronted with insistent rhythms, melodies trying to free themselves from relentlessly unyielding harmonic clutches, fragments desperately seeking to link up. The side drum in the fifth symphony is instructed to play so as to drown out the rest of the orchestra; two sets of timpani in the fourth symphony The Inextinguishable carry out a ferocious duel. The composer's rhetoric nonetheless succeeds in capturing the listener; its occasional apparent gaucheness or naivety only reinforces its unquestionable integrity and sincerity. Not, then, you would have thought, a leading contender for writing a comic opera.

Nielsen's Maskarade, completed in 1906, is now receiving its first ever performances at Covent Garden, in a production seen earlier at the Bregenz Festival, directed by David Pountney and conducted by Michael Schønwandt of the Royal Opera in Copenhagen. I so much wanted to enjoy it – and its shortcomings cannot be laid at the feet of the colourful pantomime, free of excesses, of the production, or at those of Schønwandt, who gives as authentic an account of the music as we are likely to get – he plunges into the overture (the only part with which most are likely to be at all familiar) with great zest, and keeps things moving briskly along. I am afraid the accusing finger must indeed be directed at the composer.

The plot, which is so thin as to make Fledermaus appear like a work of Immanuel Kant, requires above all, if it is to sustain an evening, two qualities which Strauss J. (and R. for that matter) possessed in abundance but Nielsen totally lacked – wit and romance. Certainly Nielsen's music has individuality, even pungency, but, like his libretto, it is all too pawky to lift us out of our lumpen selves. We cannot therefore engage with our hero (Leander, sung by Michael Schade) and heroine, attractively though they sing, (on the night I went Katie van Kooten stepped in as understudy for the role of Leonora), or even pretend to worry that their amours might be disrupted by their fathers. We may be struck by the patter and personality of Leander's valet Henrik (Kyle Ketelsen), but the general level of sophistication of the rest of the characters is more in line with the boorish Arv (Adrian Thompson), servant of Leander's bullying father Jeronimus (Brinsley Sherratt).

Nielsen's service in the Danish opera orchestra, as second violin and occasional conductor, he put to good use: so we have the Night Watchman in Act II borrowed from Wagner's Meistersinger (himself a borrowing from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots), and a quasi-Figaro and Susanna in Henrik and Leonora's maid Pernille (Gail Pearson, given a characterisation with an appealing tinge of S&M). The dances which pad out Act III (which takes place at the Masquerade Ball itself) also have a whiff, structurally, of French Grand Opera, although they contain some of the evening's most distinctive music. I enjoyed the Dance of the Vanities in which Elvis and Marilyn put in energetic appearances. But in general although the evening is entertaining enough, we miss the added dimension to which more seductive or sophisticated music might have elevated it. It is not entirely fair, of course, to point out that Ariadne auf Naxos was written only five years later, but it is the comparison which most frequently came to mind.

The opera is strangely disadvantaged by being sung in English, to a translation by Pountney himself. I am no purist in the question of original languages and I know nothing of the quality of the Danish text. But whilst Pountney earns a gold star for some of his more Gilbertian efforts - the rhyming of "Maskarade" with "Group-Captain Douglas Bader" certainly sorted out the Brits in the audience from the tourists – they unfortunately detract, for a number of reasons, from the impact of the production. Firstly, the wit of Gilbert was perfectly matched with that of Sullivan so that even when heard in a bizarrely different language – for example Yiddish, as a recent Radio 4 documentary surprisingly displayed – the general effect can be replicated. This match of words and music, as already mentioned, is not present in Maskerade. As all the singers sang with exemplary clarity, (including those from Germany and Denmark) the disparity was even more evident to the London audience than if they had been singing in the original. This was exacerbated by surtitles in English, quite unnecessary given the artistry of the performers, which, instead of (as usual) giving a brief prose précis of extended passages, clumpingly rendered puns, platitudes and every trivial exchange in extenso. I recommend seats at the back of the stalls circle so that this annoyance is out of your sight-lines.

At the performance I attended, the irritation factor was raised even higher by the idiocy of having a sign language translator throughout at stage-right, gesturing away (to herself, I rather suspect). A daft note of explanation in the programme states that that there are 70,000 deaf users of British Sign Language (BSL). It does not inform us how many of these are regular or occasional opera-attenders, a statistic which would be interesting to know, and does not explain why these would not be satisfied (if they ever did come) with the existing surtitles. The note pleads:

A sign-language interpreter […] can convey characters' emotions, intentions, nuances of meaning, the mood of musical passages […] or indeed, who is singing what in an ensemble. […] Surtitles and a sign-language interpreter provide different things.
This is an remarkable set of assertions. If BSL users get such benefits, which can lead them to the heart of issues often not discernible to the rest of us, why should we be deprived just because we can hear? I demand a "personal opera trainer" who can hold my hand throughout performances and tell me, for example, just exactly what is going through the mind of Alberich or Scarpia…….

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